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on 4 July 2013
This is a review of the Oxford World Classics edition of 1998, originally published in 1993. It has been translated and edited by Richard Hunter.
As usual with classic texts, I disregarded Hunter's introduction, vowing to read it after I had read Apollonius's words first. Instead, I went straight to the three maps supplied and was straightaway surprised. For someone like me who comes to the work after having watched avidly as a child (and many times thereafter as an adult) the Harryhausen movie of 1963, I was curious and intrigued to see the maps depicting Jason's return journey from Colchis by a roundabout route via the Danube, Croatia, Lombardy, Provence, Corfu, Libya, and Crete.
"The `Argonautica' is a difficult poem" is Hunter's opening and daunting remark in his preface, perhaps referring to his translation rather than problems for the reader. He continues, "Nevertheless, its importance within ancient literary history is not in doubt, even for those who do not actually like it."
First of all, the prospective reader should be assured that the text is presented in prose form. The first eight pages are indeed, not `difficult' as such, but a chore, a listing of names, ancestry, place of origin, and claim to fame. I'm not sure that the content of Hunter's endnotes makes matters easier for the reader. (Indeed, since there are quite a number of notes per page - seven on the first alone - footnotes would have been better.)
But after sailing, the text of the journey starts to flows in a jerking rhythm. Soon we arrive at Lemnos, where all the women have murdered the males - husbands, fathers, and sons - and now seek to `combine' with the Argonauts to repopulate their society. Hardly Hollywood material! As we continue I concluded that the `poem' was not a bad read at all, especially if the reader imagines the narrative, like Homer's, as an oral tale being relayed in a social setting.
It was interesting to compare the text with the movie. In the tale Jason is blond, but Phineus and the Harpies appear (and are actually dealt with better in the book than in the film), as do the clashing rocks at the Bosphorus (again with notable differences from the film), and it is Athena (not Hera) who graces the ship with her protection.
At the end of the third of the four books that comprise Apollonius's tale, Jason has defeated the "earth-born warriors" grown from the seed of the dragon's teeth, but this occurs before Jason obtains the fleece, using guile rather than heroics. Jason does not have to defeat the guarding dragon, for Medea does it for him: "As it rolled towards them, the maiden fixed it in the eye and called in a lovely voice upon Sleep, the helper, the highest of the gods, to bewitch the beast."
The fourth and final book details the wonderings of the Argonauts on their way home. Because Jason and Medea murder under the guise of negotiation Medea's brother Apsyrotos, who is chasing them, Zeus is not pleased. The god proposes that the Argonauts endure "numberless sufferings" before reaching home. Thus they have to face the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, and the bronze warrior Talos only appears towards the end of the book rather than towards the beginning of the film. We are spared the subsequent details of Jason's and Medea's tragic relationship, as Apollonius's work ends before this.
Hunter's twenty-two page introduction provides the reader with what little is known of Apollonius the man. He then places the poem in the context of Alexandrian poetry and its interaction with the Argo references of Callimachus and Theocritus. Hunter then writes of the story itself - its background ("Aspects of the Argonautic story have been told many times in Greek poetry before Apollonius"), context, and differences from other versions.
Hunter remarks how, "The story of Jason falls into a familiar pattern of `initiation quest' in which a young man must succeed in terrible challenges before claiming his rightful inheritance." He later points out how Apollonius constantly engages in a "dialogue with the Homeric texts", most notably of course with `The Odyssey'. Hunter ends with a few paragraphs on Apollonius's influence on later Roman poets, most notably - it goes without saying - Virgil's `Aeneid'.
The book comes with a bibliography and an index, useful for all the names that appear in the text.